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Leading Jewish figure calls on French government ‘to act’ as anti-Semitism reaches tipping point

“When it comes to the most aggressive anti-Semitism and hatred of the Jews, it’s coming from the Muslims. Not from the extreme right. It’s difficult for some people to admit,” said Arié Bensemhoun, executive director of the European Leadership Network.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyah and his wife, Sara, with French President Emmanuel Macron at the ceremony marking the National Day in Remembrance of victims of racism and anti-Semitic crimes, and in tribute to Righteous Among the Nations, in Paris on July 16, 2017. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyah and his wife, Sara, with French President Emmanuel Macron at the ceremony marking the National Day in Remembrance of victims of racism and anti-Semitic crimes, and in tribute to Righteous Among the Nations, in Paris on July 16, 2017. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.

With a 74 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiments are seemingly everywhere in France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, which is now not only facing anti-Semitism on the far-right, but also anti-Zionism from the far-left and radical Muslims.

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced in February that 541 anti-Semitic incidents took place in 2018 in France, up from 311 in 2017. One of the most publicized and disturbing attacks of the year was the brutal murder of Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old French Jew and Holocaust survivor who was stabbed 11 times and then set on fire in her apartment by two assailants. The murder was officially declared by French authorities as an anti-Semitic hate crime.

In the first weeks of 2019 alone, two teenagers were arrested after they allegedly fired shots at a synagogue with an air rifle in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, 96 tombs were desecrated in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France, the word “Juden,” which means “Jews” in German, was scrawled across a bagel shop in Paris, and swastikas were drawn on public portrait of former French politician and Auschwitz survivor Simone Veil.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said that France is now experiencing a “resurgence of anti-Semitism unseen since World War II.”

Arié Bensemhoun, executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization European Leadership Network (ELNET) France, explained how unlike in the past, when Jews were targeted mainly by extremists on the political right, they are now facing hatred and discrimination from the far-left as well as radical Muslims in the country.

Bensemhoun, 56, believes that the most extreme hatred stems from France’s large Muslim population, which is estimated at 6 million to 10 million people, The New York Times reported in July 2018. The same report noted that there are only 500,000 Jews in France in comparison.

Arié Bensemhoun, executive director of ELNET France. Credit: ELNET.

“When it comes to the most aggressive anti-Semitism and hatred of the Jews, it’s coming from the Muslims,” said Bensemhoun. “Not from the extreme right. It’s difficult for some people to admit.”

ELNET’s goal is to strengthen the relations between Europe and Israel, acting like AIPAC in the European arena, he explained.

Although there are talks about “new anti-Semitism” veering its head in the country, Bensemhoun said nothing is new about the attacks, stereotypes and language used against Jews in France. The only difference, he explained, is that “we are now facing not just one kind of anti-Semitism.”

“Today, we have to fight against the traditional anti-Semitism from the extreme right, and also now the ones coming from Islamism and the Muslim communities. And then we have also this anti-Zionism coming from the extreme left,” he explained. “So you see the situation is much more complex because from all sides of the society you will find people that have a problem with the system, that would like to defeat the system, and when you want to defeat the system [they think] your first target should be the Jews.”

Bensemhoun also elaborated that there were certain “taboos” about anti-Semitism that have now disappeared. He said that after World War II, it was frowned upon to be against Jews because of the suffering they experienced at the hands of the Nazis. However, people are now forgetting about those taboos, and again expressing hatred towards the Jewish community and Israel, and the latter’s so-called persecution and “colonization” of the Palestinians. The anti-Semitism currently taking over in France is nothing “new,” but a re-emergence of these longstanding anti-Semitic tropes and false stereotypes involving Jews, money and their desire to control the world.

Bensemhoun knows people who were beaten in the streets of France and targeted with insults because of their Jewish heritage. When he was president of the Jewish community in Toulouse, France, he met with tens of hundreds of people who faced anti-Semitism and heard about thousands of acts against Jews over the span of 15 years, he said.

‘Anti-Semitism is a fact; we live with it’

Julie Hazan, 35, who was born and raised in Marseille and is now the resource development director of ELNET New York, said she has friends in France terrified to send their children to Jewish schools because they are such a recognized targeted.

“But they still do it,” said Hazan, whose entire family still lives in Marseille, which has the second-largest Jewish population in France outside Paris. “They are resilient. They are used to it. They know they can always go to Israel if they have to, but otherwise they are going to go on with their lives. They just live through it.”

“Anti-Semitism is there [in France]; it’s a fact, but we live with it,” she added. “For us it’s ancient.”

Swastika and graffiti scrawled on a portrait in Paris of the late Holocaust survivor Simone Veil, a French lawyer and politician who served as Minister of Health and a member of the Constitutional Council of France, February 2019. Credit: YouTube Screenshot.

Hazan points to an uptick anti-Semitism after the Second Intifada, a period of intensified Israeli-Palestinian violence that lasted from September 2000 to February 2005. Anti-Semitic attacks in Europe have generally coincided with increased tensions in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians, and in January 2006, the case of Ilan Halimi drew national and international attention as an example of the alarming presence of anti-Semitism in France.

Halimi, 23, a young Frenchman of Moroccan Jewish descent, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. The kidnappers contacted the victim’s family repeatedly and demanded very large sums of money, believing that all Jews are rich. Halimi was held captive and tortured for three weeks and eventually died of his injuries a month later.

Hazan said not only is the growing Muslim population in France contributing to the rise in anti-Semitism in the country, it’s coupled with resistance to integrate in society. She is not optimistic about a turn in the anti-Semitic sentiments across her home country, saying, “In France to be honest, I think it’s too late.”

‘It’s time to see the reality and fight it’

While the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in France began more than a decade ago, the anti-establishment “yellow-vests” movement that started in November 2018, which began as a protest against rising fuel prices and an increased cost of living, has become another avenue for Jewish aggression.

Linking the economy with Jewish is nothing new in Europe, and the protests quickly drew the far-right and the far-left to the movement’s activities, where anti-Semitic slurs such as “dirty Jew” and worse have been heard, with some Jews even being harassed.

But a tipping point came in February, following the vandalism of 80 gravestones in a Jewish cemetery in the Alsace region of France. It prompted thousands of people to join rallies in Paris and across the country on Feb. 19 in public opposition to anti-Semitism.

The events were held under the banner of “That’s Enough.”

The next day, Macron announced that he would crackdown on the “scourge” of anti-Semitism in his country. At a dinner attended by leaders of the Jewish community in Paris, he criticized a “resurgence of anti-Semitism unseen since World War II,” which the French leader said is not only happening in France, but in “all of Europe and most Western democracies.”

He also said France will adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, adding that “anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism.”

The Paris bagel shop where the German word “Juden” (“Jews”) was spray-painted in yellow on the front door, February 2019. Credit: YouTube Screenshot.

Macron added that the rising levels of anti-Semitism across the continent have garnered “too much indignation, too many words [and] not enough results.” And he vowed to fight it.

Bensemhoun also called on more action by the French government, saying “now is time to act—not just to condemn and to state about anti-Semitism, but to act against anti-Semitism. The [government] understands that they should do more, and it’s clear that we are in a critical time, but also it’s a time of opportunities because things are moving [forward].”

He added, “We are coming from a time of denial, and it’s time to see the reality and fight it. I think we will be powerful because of this raised awareness that we have now in the country, which is very important.”

Educating people about the lies and passing stricter laws against anti-Semitism are two ways of combating the ongoing anti-Semitic cloud hovering over France, according to Bensemhoun. Policy-makers and intellectuals need to be mobilized to prevent, by law and by education, further acts of hatred and to punish those who incite racist behavior.

Bensemhoun noted that anti-Semitism in France isn’t just a Jewish problem. “It’s the problem of the whole country,” he said. “We should rise and fight this problem with all of society because most of the people in this country and in Europe are with us.”

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